Dame Sheila Hancock on family, loneliness and speaking her mind

by Alison James |

Dame Sheila Hancock, whose latest book Old Rage is out now, says one of the advantages of getting older is being able to speak your mind.

Sheila Hancock’s fifth book was originally supposed to be about growing older serenely, a kind of ‘homage’ to living a happy and fulfilled life in our senior years. But then events, both in the world and her own life, took over and the direction drastically changed.

Brexit, the pandemic and illness

“I’d started the book and had written quite a bit of it – then Brexit happened, which I felt was a disaster; my daughter became very, very ill; I was diagnosed with debilitating rheumatoid arthritis; the pandemic happened and I was classed as very vulnerable,” she says.

“It felt like the world was collapsing around me and I began rewriting the book from a different angle because I felt angry about everything. I’ve always been quite angry but life felt – and still feels – particularly unsafe at the moment.

“I saw a woman on television recently, not as old as me (Sheila is – incredibly – 90 next birthday) but she was elderly. She echoed my thoughts when she said that so many of the institutions she had believed in, she could no longer trust. The Government, the police, even the Post Office – and, through no fault of its own, the NHS.”

"I really don't care what people think about me or what I say anymore,"

Sheila certainly doesn’t hold back in Old Rage. It is a searingly honest book – yet moving, funny and wise at the same time.

On saying what she thinks

“I really don’t care what people think about me or what I say anymore,” she says. “This is one of the advantages of old age. Maybe it’s something to do with knowing that I’m not going to be around that much longer and so it doesn’t matter. I’m less polite than I used to be. If, for instance, I think someone isn’t doing a very good job of something, I’ll tell them. I’m not ‘I am driven. It drives me mad sometimes but I can’t stop’ being unkind, I’m just being honest. I don’t mind being contradicted but I have to be able to say what I think.”

The book is written in diary form yet Sheila says she will never publish her own diaries, which she writes at the end of every day. “I’ll burn them instead! My diary is where I offload my thoughts and get stuff out. I might be
angry that one of my lovely daughters hasn’t phoned me that day and I’ll rant that they don’t love me, don’t care about me and I could be lying dead on the floor for all they cared and that no one would know. Now of read that in the future!”

Shelia's daughters and grandchildren

Sheila has three daughters: Melanie (from her first marriage to actor Alec Ross who died in 1971); Abigail
(from her late actor husband John Thaw’s first marriage) and Joanna (the daughter she and John had together). The girls have given her eight grandchildren, ranging from mid-20s down to age ten.

“I love seeing them developing their own opinions and then having proper conversations with them,” she reveals. “The older ones come to me and talk about things they feel they can’t talk about with
their parents.

“They’re all activists of some sort. They support causes and really do care about the planet, about people and animals. My grandchildren are all on the right course and they’re really working hard to change things.”

With a grandmother like Sheila, that’s hardly surprising. “I am driven,” she admits. “It drives me mad sometimes but I can’t stop and don’t imagine that I ever will. I always course I don’t really mean that, and I wouldn’t want any of them to feel I should be doing something – reading, writing, researching. I can’t just sit there and not do anything.”

Shelia on loneliness

This includes combatting the loneliness that many feel comes with old age and loss. What does Sheila feel can be done about this?

“Speak up more and get involved with things. I receive many letters from widowed people telling me
how lonely they are. I know what it’s like to feel like that. When you lose someone, you have two choices – you can stay stuck where you are or you can say, ‘I am now on my own, my life has changed and I need to change the way I operate’. Sit on a park bench and get chatting to the people sitting next to you, contact local schools and volunteer to hear pupils read... Even become a bit of an activist, there are plenty of things to write to your MP about!”

For Sheila, work is a great comfort and solace as well as fulfilment – and she has no plans to stop.

“There is no retirement age in my job,” she says. “As long as I’m able to remember the words and stumble across the stage or set without bumping into things, I’m not suddenly redundant. I’m doing a crime thing on TV next.” Of course, she is – and long may it continue!

Old Rage by Sheila Hancock is out now, rrp £18.99

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